Al and I had planned to do the six-day guided hike over the Pyrenees Mountains from France to Spain called the Path to Freedom. However, after the Tunisia Battlefield expedition, Spanish Civil War sites and just off the Hannibal Trail trek, we only had one free day before friend, Norman, joined us.
We planned to do a short portion of the famous World War II escape route and started our early morning hike from the village of La Riviere, France.
We came across the former mayor of the area and an avid hiker at La Riviere, and he walked with us to the next village of Alos and pointed out the path for us.
Using a trail guidebook written by a British escapee, we planned to hike up to a memorial for a "passeur" (an escape guide) who had been killed by the Nazis.
During World War II as the Nazi persecution and occupation of Europe spread, thousands attempted to escape to the safety of neutral Spain.
Le Chemin de la Liberte is one hardest of many escape routes across the Pyrenees Mountains from France to Spain. It was chosen to represent and commemorate the paths to freedom that desperate and threatened people took to escape the brutal rule of the Nazi regime. German intelligencia, European Jews, French resistance fighters, downed Allied airman and POW escapees in the thousands attempted the crossing. Most made it to Spain but many perished along the way - either succumbing to the harsh conditions or intercepted by Gestapo agents and either executed or sent to concentration camps.
Toulouse | one of the main gathering places for escapees before the long climb over the Pyrenees
The Freedom Path | summer 2022
The day started out drizzly and cool for us - pretty optimal conditions for our short hike. Since we started in the foothills of the mountain chain, altitude was not a significant factor. The conditions for evaders, especially those that had to cross in the non-summer months, were harsh and dangerous - high altitude, driving rains, snow fields, bitter cold, numbing winds, slippery, muddy and icy trail paths. Most of the escapees, who had already managed weeks of hiding while making their way across France, were often weak and improperly clothed to attempt the crossing. They had no choice, but to perservere - risking capture through the well-patrolled hostile landscape.
Conditions were ideal for our hike. The steady uphill climb and slippery wet leaves taxed me a bit, but thoughts of what the escapees had to endure and the possibility they faced of a deadly ambush at any moment put me in somber, contemplative mood.
The trail skirts most villages, and ascents mountain passes numerous times. Most of the lower elevation path winds through heavy forests. During war time, those parts of the trail that passed nearby villages, were traversed in the dead of night.
Note | An interesting historical drama about a "passeur" family that was filmed on location is the movie "Waiting for Anya". It stars Anjelica Houston, Jean Reno and Noah Schnapp. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waiting_for_Anya_(film)
We reached the Col de l'Artigue after two hours of steady climbing. After some searching, we crossed a field of daisies, alive with butterflies, to reach the barn of the Barrau family. A beautiful scene, but disturbing what to think what happened here 80 years ago. On the night of September 12th 1943, 19-year old mountain guide and ‘passeur’, Louis Barrau, was surrounded by a Gestapo patrol as he waited for a group of escapees. He had been given up by a resistance operative who had been tortured into divulging his location. Though surrounded, he still tried to make a dash for it and was gunned down and killed.
The Barrau Barn | passeur Louis Barrau memorial
We turned back at this point and with thoughts of sacrifice, suffering and hope on my mind, descended the mountain - the only sounds | the crush of drying leaves and distant intermittent ringing of cow bells. I thought about the path we were not continuing. It would have descended for a mile or so and then risen to summit other higher passes until it reached the final pass and frontier - the 8,000 foot granite rock Col de la Pale de la Clauere - and freedom.
Back in our car we wanted to visit two remote villages further into the mountains. In our rented Chinese SUV and with inceasingly narrow one-lane unimproved twisting roads and dangerous drop offs, we abandoned the effort and managed a nerve-racking turn around.
Memorial to the memory of the Passeur Pyreniens | Wi-Wi network and O'Leary Line
Just outside the town of Seix, we came across a monument to the passeurs of the O'Leary Line and the Franco-American Wi-Wi network of the OSS (US Army Organization of Strategic Services). Each year an honored guard ceremony attended by descendants of the passeurs and escapees is held in July.
St. Girons | starting point in France of the Chemin de la Liberte
The privately-owned and volunteer-run Maison du Chemin de la Liberte museum has limited hours and we pressed on to St. Girons. Assistant Director Dominique told me about a British escapee that had helped promote the path and the museum and had died recently. There was a memorial tribute behind a glass case dedicated to him. While browsing the displays, I came across the US invasion battle plans for the Gulf of Frejus titled "Secret - Bigot". It was the US amphibious assault on southern France in August 1944. My dad who was an OSS cryptographer during tgevwar came ashore in September and was stationed outside Marseille.
A touching and tragic story and monument to a father and son passeur team. The inscriptions reads | Oscar Auriac (1879-1949) | Jean Auriac (1906-1941) | The father lived for France, the son died for her | "....I too will no longer see the sun. But the luminous memory of my years at Saint Cloud with the clear image of a gentle and proud son who became my model, because he knew how to grasp life and entered the darkness of death without fear."
Al and I were lodging at a country house and decided to take advantage of the late evening and beautiful garden to dine "a la Regis" (in reference to a villa host the previous year near Pau) with cheese, charcuterie and wine. Olivia, our host this time, knew of our interest in historical events during the war joined us and recounted the story of her father.
Her father was a meteorologist and was called up by the l'Armee de l'Aire at the beginning of the war. He was decommissioned after France surrendered only to be called up again by the Vichy regime. As with so many French people, their relative's lives have been greatly impacted by the two world wars.
Sort Prison | Spain | passage to freedom
At the Maison du Chemin de la Liberte, we learned that almost all the escapees that made it to Spain were picked up and detained by the Spanish border patrol. Those that crossed the Pyrenees at the Col de la Pale de la Clauere were imprisoned at Sort, so we decided to head there and check it out.
The prison museum of Sort is only opened by appointment and only for certain hours. I had communicated, in my very broken Spanish with a museum volunteer, and he would be waiting for us. However, as the spectacular drive up, through and over the Pyrenees took longer than expected and fearing the museum custodian would not wait around for us, both Norman and I would call periodically to update him on our progress. Cellphone reception was poor and broken. No internet to access translation software, so we were unsure if our pathetic attempts to communicate our situation had been understood. We arrived just at 5pm - and Pau, the Sort Prison Museum custodian, was there and waiting.
He greeted us timidly in English and then proceeded to tell us the history of the prison in fantastic English. The general gist of how the Spanish authorities dealt with the escapees depended on where you were from, where you had planned to go from Spain, and when in the war you crossed.
At the beginning many German citizens and Jews were turned over to the Vichy Government which then, in most cases, were handed to the Nazis. Their fate - internment in a concentration camps and almost certain death.
One such story that illustrates, not only the danger escapees faced while on the run in France, but also the tragic fear of being caught and handed over to French Vichy authorities is that of German Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin. He and his party of evaders had successfully made it across the border at Port Bou in September 1940 when they were apprehended by Spanish border police. They were told that they would be delivered to the French the next day. Benjamin, fearing ending up in Nazis custody, took an overdose of morphine and died. A memorial at Port Bou has been erected in his name.
French resistance and citizen escapees were sent to France's North African colonies which after the successful US and British Operation Torch landings in October 1942 were now once again part of the Allied coalition.
Many others, being deemed a possible threat to Spanish fascism, were sent to Spanish concentration camps where Spanish Republicans from the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and other undesirables were held.
American and British aviators were given preferential treatment. Instead of being held in the small, cramped jail, they were housed in town's best hotel, Le Pessets.
Once an Allied pilot was safely across the border, diplomats stationed in Spain would escort them to Portugal and then back to England.
US Army Air Force fighter pilot Chuck Yeager | evader
On March 5th 1944, while flying a P-51 Mustang with the 363d Fighter Squadron, Chuck Yeager was shot down over France. He was rescued by the Maquis - French underground. While with the Maquis and before crossing into Spain on March 30th, he helped construct bombs for them - a skill he had learned from his father. He made his way back to England via Portugal on May 15th. Though "evaders" shot down and ferried to freedom by the French resistance were prohibited from flying combat missions over enemy territory, Yeager "... raised so much hell that General Eisenhower finally let me go back to my squadron". Yeager continued to fly combat mission earning him an "ace" classification after shooting down 11.5 enemy aircraft including one of the first air-to-air victories against a jet fighter, the German Messerschmitt Me 262.
My brief exposure to the Freedom Trail and the many stories of courage, sacrifice and endurance and the shear beauty and drama of the landscape were on my mind as we switched gears and headed towards Madrid via the Spanish Civil War memorial city of Belchite.
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